Header Image - Inspiration for Triathletes Over 50

Category Archives

32 Articles

Training to Train – Building Aerobic Fitness for Senior Triathletes

by Terry VanderWert 0 Comments
Training to Train – Building Aerobic Fitness for Senior Triathletes

This post is the first in a series about training for the beginner and intermediate triathlete age 50 and over. This one focuses on creating aerobic fitness for senior triathletes.

The foundation for structured triathlon training is a solid base of aerobic fitness. Even elite athletes typically begin each new season with a ‘base phase’.

In Train To Tri: Your First Triathlon, the Base Phase is defined as “the period during a training cycle where basic endurance is the focus, normally in the beginning of the season.”

Look at training plans for triathlon or for the individual sports of a triathlon. In most of these, you will read about ‘base building’ or something similar.

But what does ‘building a base’ mean? And, how does one go about it? More specifically, how do senior triathletes develop this base level of aerobic fitness?

While there is plenty of discussion about the need to achieve a base level of fitness before beginning structured training, there is seldom detail on how this is done. The closest advice I had previously found was to train at ‘low to moderate intensity’ for one to two months at the beginning of the season.

I need something more specific. And, I need to know when I have completed the Base Phase.

Following is information about the plan I have started to use for the aerobic base building phase. I believe it answers these two needs.

Aerobic Fitness is the Foundation for High Performing Senior Triathletes

During the three decades of the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, eastern European athletes dominated endurance sports by adopting training programs in which the training stresses were varied throughout the year.

In the 1960s, this concept was refined and formalized by Dr. Tudor Bompa of the Romanian Institute of Sports. His research, which led to him becoming known as the “father of periodization’, helped eastern European athletes dominate sports on the world stage.

This domination by the eastern Europeans ended when athletes across the rest of the world learned about and adopted periodization.

Periodization is based on the idea that training is most effective when it progresses from general to that specific to the athlete’s main sport. In the context of triathlon, this means starting with building a solid base of endurance before focusing on performance, that is, speed and distance, in swimming, biking, and running.

Why Senior Triathletes Need to First Develop an Aerobic Fitness Base

I understand. You are eager to get out and train hard. Besides, who wants to spend two months plodding along in the run. Isn’t ‘No pain, no gain’ our mantra?

I am constantly reminded that patience is not only a virtue but one of the triathlete’s best friends. Here’s why senior triathletes need to start by developing aerobic fitness.

Minimizes injury while building strength

Combined with strength, a base level of aerobic fitness for senior triathletes is our main antidote to injury.

The wisdom of the ‘No pain’ philosophy has come into serious question. I certainly no longer buy this. My impatience has nearly always led to injury or at least enough fatigue that training is not consistent.

This is supported by Coach Parry who provides the “Faster After 50” training program. In a video interview, Coach Parry gave the top five tips for starting to run after age 50.

Interestingly, his number 1 tip is to “walk before you run”. This approach has the combined benefit of (1) building aerobic fitness and (2) strengthening body parts such as tendons that are most subject to injury.

Building aerobic fitness and strength combine to gradually prepare the body to minimize, if not avoid, injury when eventually subjected to higher intensity training.

Results in more effective race specific training

Secondly, without a base level of aerobic fitness, we will not have the endurance needed to execute the high intensity workouts required to increase our performance. Without an aerobic base, we will never be a serious contender in a sprint triathlon, never mind a longer distance race.

As a result of inconsistent training due to injury and fatigue, my aerobic endurance had become sub-standard. Even though I usually ran 3 days per week, most of the time my heart rate was well above the aerobic zone.

That my aerobic fitness needed improvement was confirmed earlier this year when I started running with a Stryd power meter. My results, displayed in the Stryd Powercenter app, showed that my strength was well above average for my age. However, my fitness, fatigue resistance, and endurance were all below average. 

In short, I was able to run fast enough in hill repeats and short sprints, just not for very long.

I decided to take a step back and work on my aerobic fitness.

Developing Aerobic Fitness for Senior Triathletes

The base level of aerobic endurance is developed through an extended period of moderate level physical activity. This is activity that our bodies can eventually sustain for hours since it is fueled by fat, something of which we all have plenty.

But, how do you know what is ‘moderate’?

One approach is to limit one’s pace by breathing only through the nose. A second guide is to limit one’s running pace to that at which you are able to maintain a conversation.

A more objective approach is to use a heart rate monitor. Today, these are available as a chest strap connected to a smartphone or watch, a sensor built into a sports watch that measures heart rate at the wrist, and, more recently, as a sensor built into earbuds.

What is the heart rate at which you should be training to most effectively build base aerobic fitness?

Training with a heart rate monitor – the CDC method

There are different approaches to developing the aerobic endurance base using a heart rate monitor (HRM).

The United States Centers for Disease Control defines the target heart rate for moderate-intensity physical activity rate based on age. Following is the CDC calculation of heart rate range with an example for a 70-year-old person.

  1. Subtract your age from 220.
    • Example: For a person age 70, the maximum heart rate is 150 (220-70 = 150) beats per minute (bpm).
  2. Next, multiply the maximum heart rate by 64% and 76% to obtain the lower and upper limits of the heart rate range for moderate-intensity physical activity. In our example for the 70-year-old person, these limits are:
    • 64% value: 150 x 0.64 = 96 bpm
    • 76% value: 150 x 0.76 = 114 bpm

In summary, the CDC method shows that a person age 70 should maintain a heart rate between 96 and 114 bpm during a period of moderate-intensity physical activity.

Training with a heart rate monitor – the MAF method

An approach that is more specific to triathletes is the MAF (Maximum Aerobic Function) method developed by Dr. Phil Maffetone. Dr. Maffetone was the coach for six-time World Ironman Champion, Mark Allen, so I consider him credible.

The MAF method promotes building a healthy aerobic system based on managing three components: exercise, nutrition and stress.

Part of the Maffetone approach is MAF-180 for calculating the aerobic zone heart rate range, also based on age. However, the calculation is even simpler.

Applying this method, our active 70-year triathlete will train with a maximum heart rate of 180-70 = 110. The lower end of the training range is 10 bpm below the maximum.

So, using the MAF method, the heart rate range for our 70-year triathlete during the base building phase is 100 to 110 bpm.

Putting it in practice

In my first use of this method, I followed a program of running/walking five days per week. On the other two days, I cross trained with biking, swimming, and kayaking. Except when swimming, I wore a heart rate monitor chest strap synced to my Garmin watch. Throughout each session, I would adjust my pace to keep my heart rate within the rate recommended in the MAF method.

At the time of the original publication of this post, I had recorded and charted data for a 3.5 mile run/walk on paved trails around my home. Results are shown in the chart below for the first 28 days.

chart showing aerobic training for senior triathletes
MAF-180 test results for run/walk on the same 3.5 mile course while maintaining my heart rate in the prescribed range.

As predicted by Dr. Maffetone, the time to complete each mile gradually decreased over the period. Also, the time for each successive mile was longer than the previous, though the times should converge as aerobic fitness increases.

When Should You Consider the Base Period Complete?

Most training programs will recommend a base building period of up to two months. This assumes training within the aerobic heart rate range for 5 to 7 days per week along with adequate rest and proper nutrition.

For a new runner, the authors of Run Less, Run Faster prescribe a “3-month base training” program that combines running and walking. Once this is complete, the runner would begin their training plan.

If you are anything like me, you want something more definitive. Joe Friel in The Triathletes Training Bible describes a numerical approach to determine when the base phase can be considered complete.

Friel’s method uses a ratio of pace (run) or power (bike or run) to heart rate for segments of a fixed run or bike course. When this ratio for the first portion of the session is consistently within 5% of the ratio for the second portion, you have arrived at the end of the Base Phase.

Use the Comments section below to request a copy of the Google Sheet that includes these calculations.

Where Do You Go From Here?

With a proper aerobic endurance fitness base, you can now proceed to higher intensity workouts. These build the anaerobic system and increase performance.

After completing the base phase, gradually increase the intensity of your exercise. This is especially true if you are planning to race. For example, you can add speed drills into your swimming, biking, and running sessions.

However, even then, the consensus among trainers is to maintain an 80:20 ratio of aerobic (moderate intensity) to anaerobic (high intensity) training. And, also heed the rule of thumb of not increasing the intensity or duration of a session by more than 10% per week to avoid injury.

What Is Your Experience and Approach To Building Aerobic Fitness?

Share your thoughts and questions about aerobic training in the Comments section below.

Disclaimer: Please note that SeniorTriathletes.com is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program.  This is an affiliate advertising program that provide a way for sites to earn advertising fees.  They do this by advertising and linking to amazon.com. Amazon, the Amazon logo, AmazonSupply, and the AmazonSupply logo are trademarks of Amazon.com, Inc. or its affiliates.  As an affiliate, I will receive a small commission for any purchases of this product that you make through Amazon.


Pros and Cons of Running in the Heat

Pros and Cons of Running in the Heat
After a run in the Minnesota heat and humidity.

When first thinking about this post, I expected to find plenty of support for not running in the heat.

In the past, I had done almost anything to avoid running in hot, humid weather. This included getting up before the crack of dawn to complete my run while it was still reasonably cool. Or, I would go inside for a run on a treadmill or an indoor track.

This made sure I got in the miles. However, I now realize I missed out on the benefits of waiting until later in the day to complete my run.

In this post, I share what I have gleaned about the pros and cons of running in the heat. After reading it, you will understand why I am now more inclined to ignore the temperature when deciding when and where to get outside for a summer run – with my water bottle, of course.

Benefits of Running in the Heat

Science shows that running in the heat can help us prepare for races that take place in hot weather. This is not surprising.

However, what is surprising is that the benefits carryover to those races that take place in cooler weather. Beyond this, running in high temperatures can lead to improved overall fitness even if you are not racing this year.

The key, however, is to be careful when running in the heat. More about that under the ‘Cons’ section.

So, what are the benefits?

Adapt to racing in high temperature

Running in the heat helps the body adapt to the heat, or ‘acclimatize’. This is especially important if you have races that will take place in warmer climates.

In an article titled “Coping with Heat for Summer Training“, the Barbell Logic Team writes “One of the best ways to insulate yourself against heat-related problems is acclimatization, allowing your body’s built-in controls to adapt to higher temperatures.”

“Aerobically fit persons who are heat acclimatized and fully hydrated have less body heat storage and perform optimally during exercise-heat stress.”

Michael N. Sawka, C. Bruce Wenger, Andrew J. Young, and Kent B. Pandolf, (1993), ‘Physiological Responses to Exercise in the Heat’ in Marriott BM, editor, Nutritional Needs in Hot Environments: Applications for Military Personnel in Field Operations. Washington (DC): Available from National Academies Press (US).

Accelerate overall fitness gains

A second benefit of running in high temperatures is that this training can speed up fitness gains, even more so than training at a higher altitude.

An article in the Journal of Applied Physiology titled Heat acclimation improves exercise performance (Lorenzo et al., 2010) reports the major benefits of endurance training in high temperatures as:

  • Increased maximum cardiac output (measured in liters/minute of blood flow) and increased blood plasma volume, both contributing to an increase in VO2max. (VO2max is the maximum rate of oxygen consumption, often referred to as the size of one’s ‘engine’.)
  • Increased lactate threshold in cooler temperatures. (In practical terms, the lactate threshold relates to the pace one can sustain for an extended period. A higher threshold implies a higher speed for swimming, biking, and running.)

These benefits also lead to improved performance in cooler conditions. However, the benefits are finite, lasting for 1 to 2 weeks.

Click here if you want to read the technical details of the study that led to these conclusions.

Cons of Running in the Heat

Running in high temperature must be done carefully. Failing to do so can lead to physical and psychological effects that offset potential fitness gains.

Greater discomfort

Running in high heat can be just plain uncomfortable. With more blood being directed toward cooling our body, less is available for our muscles. Trying to maintain a running pace typical of cooler temperatures can lead to a spike in our heart rate and labored breathing.

Nevertheless, having learned of the important benefits of running in the heat and humidity, I slow down and push through the discomfort more easily.

Risk of heat exhaustion

Without properly hydrating or adjusting your training plan, high temperature can lead to heat exhaustion or muscle cramping.

In “Physiological Responses to Exercise in the Heat“, authors Michael N. Sawka et al. (1993) included among their conclusions:

“Dehydration from sweat loss increases plasma tonicity and decreases blood volume, both of which reduce heat loss and result in elevated core temperature levels during exercise-heat stress.”

More sweat

Sweat is our body’s way of controlling its core temperature. And, my sweat mechanism works very well.

During a run in humid heat, I quickly become a sweaty mess. On some days, this includes sloshing wet shoes. (There is hardly anything more unsettling than to see my wet shoe prints on the otherwise dry running trail.)

The problem with sweaty running gear is that it can rub against the skin, laying the groundwork for painful abrasions.

Tips for Safely Running in Heat and Humidity

The conclusion of an article in Podium Runner is “training in heated conditions, two to three times per week for 20 to 90 minutes, can produce a multitude of beneficial training effects.” The benefits include those listed above.

However, consider the following to gain the most and avoid injury from this training.

Avoid becoming dehydrated

For seniors, it is even more important to be conscious of our hydration. In Six Principles of Triathlon Training for Seniors, I noted that our thirst sensation becomes less sensitive with age. Waiting until we become thirsty can give a false sense of hydration.

First, it is important to begin the run properly hydrated. The most reliable way to ensure you are hydrated is to observe the color of your urine. If adequately hydrated, your urine will be clear to light yellow.

Then, during the run, Motion Works Physical Therapy recommends drinking 6-8 ounces of water or sports drink every 15-20 minutes. 

Finally, be sure to rehydrate after the run. An approach to rehydrating recommended by Motion Works is to weigh yourself before (dry clothing) and after a run (sweaty clothing) without clothing to determine the water lost during the run. Knowing the amount of fluid lost during a run will help determine how much water to drink after the run.

Consider electrolyte supplements . . . carefully

Electrolyte supplements may be beneficial during acclimatization. Hyponatremia, a condition resulting from electrolyte depletion caused by consuming too much water during exercise, can be avoided by consuming low doses of electrolytes (e.g. sodium, potassium, and chloride are the main ones) along with water during exercise.

However, remember that our bodies have built mechanisms to control the proper amounts of electrolytes. It is foolish, even unsafe, to consume too much of these necessary elements.

Supplementing to avoid becoming seriously depleted is a more appropriate strategy. An article by Dr. William Misner, former Director of Research & Development at Hammer Nutrition, titled “The Endurolytes Rationale” concluded that “low dose repletion rate generates electrolyte balance [homeostasis] without interfering with the electrolyte levels delicately monitored by natural endogenous processes”.

Fueling before, during, and after a run in the heat may include sports drinks and low dose electrolyte supplements.

Use the right gear

Using lightweight, light colored (to reflect the sun) wicking fabrics can promote evaporative cooling and reduce irritation from sweat-soaked running gear.

I have found that snug fitting shirts that cling to my body prevent the irritation when wet. Conversely, even loose fitting, wicking fabrics rub against sensitive parts of the body making for a painful post-run experience. Tape also works but can fall off when it becomes wet.

Pay attention to your form

On a recent run, I realized that my running form had worsened as I became tired. I now pay more attention to my posture to maximize the benefit of the run.

Did I Miss Anything?

What is your experience with running in the heat? At what point do you call it too hot to run outside and move indoors?

I know that many of you are more accomplished runners than me, so will appreciate your comments.


Why Senior Triathletes Should Use Interval Training

Why Senior Triathletes Should Use Interval Training

Interval training for senior triathletes provides important health and fitness benefits through short, intense periods of exercise. It is not surprising that, in recent years, high intensity interval training, or HIIT, has been among the most researched type of fitness program.

The interest in HIIT comes in part because of its value for the growing population of seniors. For the older athlete, HIIT can be an important part of a training plan. Why? Because it reduces the wear and tear of continuous, low to medium intensity exercise used to help us stay competitive as we age.

What is HIIT?

According to the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), high-intensity intervals are defined as those exercises performed at 80 to 95 per cent of one’s maximum heart rate. Intervals are between five seconds and eight minutes long.

The periods of high intensity are followed by periods of complete rest or active recovery performed at 40 to 50 per cent of one’s maximum heart rate. These periods depend on a person’s fitness but are generally longer than the high intensity period. As you will read further on, recovery is a critical part of an effective HIIT protocol.

Since there are so many ways to apply the principles of HIIT, this technique is used by elite and amateur athletes. It is even used as part of cardiac rehabilitation.

HIIT exercises can be performed in the gym using stationary bikes and treadmills, in the pool or lake, and at home using only bodyweight.

You May Already Be Using HIIT

If you have taken a cycling class at your local fitness center, you have probably made use of HIIT. Tabata, one of the most well known methods of applying HIIT, consists of eight repetitions of 20 seconds pedaling at 170% of maximum sustainable oxygen uptake followed by 10 seconds of rest. Done properly, the cyclist will maintain the same level of power for each repetition, rather than have the power taper off with each successive interval or even vary between intervals.

Other examples of high intensity interval training for the swim and run legs of a sprint triathlon are:

Interval training helps senior triathletes be more competitive racers.
High intensity interval training can help athletes of any age become more fit and competitive racers.

Benefits of High Intensity Intervals

High intensity interval training has three main benefits:

  • Reduces the tendency for overuse injuries,
  • Minimizes boredom – and the tendency to skip workouts – from repeating the same routine day after day,
  • Increases performance, that is, helps us become faster.

While longer, moderate intensity workouts build our body’s aerobic system, high intensity intervals tap into and strengthen both the aerobic and anaerobic systems.

In a May 22, 2019 article in Science Focus magazine titled “HIIT is changing the way we work out, here’s the science why it works“, author Jamie Millar explains the changes occurring during and as a result of high intensity intervals:

“Ramping up the intensity forces your body to tap into its anaerobic system for energy, because it can’t supply the oxygen required to work aerobically quickly enough; in the recovery intervals, your body reverts to its aerobic system. As the session goes on, your body relies less on the anaerobic system, because quick-release energy sources of phosphocreatine and glycogen (glucose stored in your muscles) become depleted. Your body will therefore start to rely more on the aerobic system, which releases energy more sustainably but slowly from fat.”

In Millar’s comments, we see benefits in developing our anaerobic system and in burning more fat. The latter is one reason why HIIT (along with proper nutrition) is great for weight loss.

What Senior Triathletes Should Know About Interval Training

Getting the most from HIIT and avoiding injury from it requires a well-thought out and properly executed plan. Here are three fundamentals of this type of routine.

First, Warmup

Before engaging in intense intervals, it is essential to warm up our muscles and get our heart rate up. My typical warmup is a 10 to 15 minute swim, bike, or run before the interval portion of the session.

Second, Recover Properly

Recovery in the context of HIIT has three meanings:

  • Recovery between each interval of a session,
  • Proper recovery at the end of HIIT session, and
  • Fully recovering between sessions.

Recovery during a HIIT session – Experts remind us to honor the recovery time specified in each interval. During the so-called ‘recovery interval’, our body clears out lactic acid from our muscles. One study showed that a recovery of 3 minutes between 4 minute running intervals led to faster, more productive intervals than when shorter or self-selected recovery intervals were used.

Recovery after a HIIT sessionA study by the German Federal Institute of Sport Science showed that active recovery, such as 15 minutes of moderate jogging after a HIIT session, led to a beneficial increase in anaerobic lactate threshold compared to passive recovery.

Recovery between sessions – Between HIIT sessions, it is important for our body to eliminate the lactic acid, hydrogen ions, and hormones (e.g. adrenaline) produced during the anaerobic exercise. For some types of HIIT, recovery also involves repair of micro tears of the muscles.

It is because of the time and need for complete recovery between intense sessions that most training programs include no more than one HIIT session per week.

Third, Be Patient

As with any form of physical activity that I can think of, doing too much too soon is a formula for injury. The key is to progress slowly.

For example, here is an example of a progression I have used, one that has NOT led to injury:

  • Hill repeats – start with 2 x 15-20 seconds running up a hill with at least 8% grade (8 feet [meters] rise over 100 feet [meters] distance) after a 10-15 minute warm-up run. Repeat every 7 to 14 days adding two repeats each session to a maximum of 10 per session. (Source: Stryd.)

On the other hand, I have become injured twice while trying to run intervals too fast. Too fast in this case means significantly faster than my 5k race pace. In one case, I injured a hamstring. Another time, I injured muscles around both knees.

Both injuries required a week without running. I am sure that I lost more than I gained from the sessions.

Managing Risks

The idea of becoming fit for little investment in time may sound appealing. However, that should not be the takeaway from this post.

To gain the benefits and avoid possible serious injury, HIIT must be done properly. The risk of high intensity can outweigh the benefits if done improperly.

Before starting a HIIT program, proponents of HIIT unanimously agree that you should discuss your plans with your physician.

How Do You Use High Intensity Intervals in Your Training?

Comment below to let us know how you are using intervals in your training? What have been the results?

Affilitate Disclosure


Enjoy this post? Please spread the word :)